Megan Rossiter is from Muskegon, Michigan. She majored in international studies and political science and minored in biological anthropology. Megan wrote a thesis on the redress of comfort women in Asia, for which she received “High Honors,” from the Program in International and Comparative Studies (PICS) Honors Program. During her time at U-M, she was regional editor of the Europe section of the Michigan Journal of International Affairs, a copy editor of the U-M Undergraduate Journal of Anthropology, a member of Sigma Iota Rho–International Studies Honor Society, and an office assistant at the International Institute (II). Megan now works as a program assistant for the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS).
Why did you choose to write an Honors thesis?
I wanted to challenge myself. I first heard about the PICS Honors Program during my sophomore year and didn’t believe that I could do it or that I would be accepted since it seemed to be selective (only 9-12 students enter a year’s cohort). However, during my junior year, a co-worker at the International Institute pushed me to apply, and once I got accepted I knew that I had the potential to finish an International Studies Honors thesis.
What did you research?
I researched the comfort women issue and the responses of Asian governments, specifically the governments of South Korea, the Philippines, and Malaysia, to it. The comfort women issue is a dispute regarding redress by Japan for its actions in establishing the comfort system, a network of sexual slavery that began in the early 1930s and ended in 1945 with the end of World War II. Most of the women forced into the system were Korean, but many Chinese, Filipina, Malaysian, and Dutch women from territories occupied by the Japanese were also in the system. During the 1990s, survivors began to come forward with their experiences and demanded apologies and compensation. Some governments actively helped these women, while others chose to ignore them and the issue.
Why did you choose to focus on this topic? And why Southeast Asia?
During my junior year, I took a comparative literature course (“Violence Against the Body in Theory and Film”) with Professor Tatjana Aleksić. One day, she showed us an interview with Kim Bok-dong, a survivor of the comfort system who had just died. I remember sitting in class and trying to hold back tears while I listened to her discuss how she never received an apology for her experiences. It really moved me. A lot of people in the class had never even heard of comfort women, so I thought that writing about them was important. Originally, I was only going to focus on the comfort women issue in Malaysia since my mother is from there and my grandma lived through the Japanese Occupation. I found it interesting that there was hardly any discussion about Malaysian comfort women, despite evidence of their being forced into the system. However, the more I researched, the more I realized that I should look at other countries, so that’s why I ended up expanding the scope of the study to South Korea and the Philippines.
What did you learn from this experience?
Obviously, through my research, I learned more about the comfort system and the controversy surrounding Japan’s address of it. I also learned about the general reasons why governments may hesitate to seek justice for past crimes. Economic dependence, for example, is a large reason; a country may be inclined to avoid conflict with another if it has heavy economic dependence on it. The Philippines and Malaysia both received a lot of Japanese investment and aid in the 1990s, and it’s highly possible that their governments chose not to take strong stances on the issue for fear of losing their economic support. Also, if the crimes are against women, governments may be hesitant to seek any justice since women’s issues, in general, are often ignored.
This experience also taught me a lot about myself and how I work best when researching. Research takes a lot of time: you’re constantly reading, writing, and revising. If you’re a procrastinator (like I am), you can run into problems. I had to learn how to better pace myself. Thankfully my advisers, Dr. Anthony Marcum and Professor Ragnhild Nordås, helped organize my research and pushed me to do more. Having a cohort was also helpful since we constantly reviewed each other’s material and offered suggestions for improving our writing. Working with my cohort introduced me to new and unfamiliar topics, such as environmental policy in the Palestinian West Bank and women’s rights movements in Argentina. The challenges of thesis writing also brought us closer since we were all struggling and supporting each other.
Overall, the most important thing I learned through this is the importance of giving a platform to those unheard. As I mentioned earlier, one of my main reasons for researching the comfort women issue in Malaysia was because there was so little information about it, due to the women’s silence for so many years and the unwillingness of those in power to raise the issue. Fear of shame and stigma often caused many former comfort women to avoid discussing their experiences. Once others started listening and providing them with support networks, these women started breaking their silence and sharing their stories. This issue is just one example of how important it is to advocate for victims of violence, especially when their own governments refuse to. Learning this has further established my desire to work in advocating for marginalized groups.
What are your plans for after graduation?
I just started my position at CSEAS in early May, where I will be until the end of August. I plan on working -- hopefully outside of Michigan -- for the next year before getting a master’s degree in public health or international relations. My ultimate goal is to work abroad.
How long have you worked for the II and CSEAS? What did you enjoy most about working there?
I’ve worked at the II since 2017, which included CSEAS projects. What I enjoy most about working at the II and CSEAS are my co-workers. In any workspace, it’s important to like your co-workers since it makes work much easier and more enjoyable! They have always supported and checked up on me through the years. They were also helpful in the thesis process, since many of them have interests in Southeast and East Asia. I honestly can’t imagine how different my experiences at the II and in writing a thesis would have been without them!